Are nations becoming outmoded? The Democratic Socialists of America recently voted to demand open borders. A member of the British parliament has recently bemoaned the existence of nations. He wants a socialist world with no national boundaries, with “international co-dependence” and wealth redistributed: “Mankind requires ever closer cooperation and mechanisms to deliver socialist redistribution of power and wealth. That is not achieved through erection of national barriers of any kind.” … “the long term goal is to build international co-dependence to such an extent that the concept of state sovereignty is ended.” He is only one of many utopians who consider national borders out-of-date and offensive, and who dream of a world united under one government. Should we not wish for a better world, where everyone has their needs met, and everyone lives in harmony? But what does the Bible say about nations? Are they a problem or a solution?
The first mention of nations in the Bible is in Genesis 10:5 describing how from the descendants of Japheth, the son of Noah, “the coastland nations spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.”* The four main terms used here (and in 10:20, 31-32), “lands,” “language,” “clans” and “nations,” all form part of the biblical view of nationhood. “Lands” (Heb. aretzim) refers to geographical territories. “Language” or “tongue” (lashon) refers to, well, language or dialect. “Clans” (mishpahoth) refers to groups with blood or family ties. “Nations” (goyim), mentioned twice, seems to be a broader term for a grouping which incorporates a population with language, genetic ties, government (Gen. 17:16, 20), and usually a place of their own (In some places it refers simply to non-Jews, or the heathen). But the genealogies of Genesis 10 anticipate the drastic changes described in Genesis 11.
Before the nations ever existed, according to Genesis 11:1, “the whole earth had one language and the same words.” They were “one people” (am echad, Gen. 11:6). This was a natural consequence of God’s creative act in beginning the human race with a single family. They tried to build a city and a tower up to heaven, to make a name for themselves, and so that they could all stay together (Gen. 11:4). But the Lord, responding to their sin and arrogance, intervened to limit their power and potential. He “confused their language,” so that they did not understand one another, and scattered them over the earth (Gen. 11:7-8). He did not want to allow them to persist in unity in rebellion.
It is true that much evil has come to the world through nations fighting each other, because of selfish human desires (James 4:1). But how much worse might the world have become if humans united their evil with their ingenuity, with full worldwide power? This is why the utopian dreams of a world united apart from the gospel have failed whenever they have been attempted. As the examples of twentieth-century empire building by international and national socialists show, such dreams turn invariably to dust and oppression, because they have no answer to the problem of their own sin. The existence of nations, then, is at one level a response to human sin, limiting the negative potential of united human evil in the world, in a similar way to the reducing of lifespans described in Genesis 6:3 reduces the time span in which sinful humans can do harm.
But there is more to the story. In Genesis 1:28 God commands his human creation, made in his image, male and female, to “multiply and fill the earth.” The city of Babel was built so that people could avoid being dispersed over the earth (Gen 11:4). After the Lord confused the languages at Babel, he “scattered them from there over the face of all the earth” (Gen. 11:8). So the intervention of God to multiply languages and nations was a means to fulfill the original design for humanity, to fill the earth with people made in his image, and to rule it on his behalf. And in Deuteronomy 32:8, we discover in the Song of Moses another thought on the events at Babel: when God the Most High separated humans—the sons of Adam (bene adam)—he gave each nation their inheritance, meaning that he set the extent and boundaries of their land. This text influences Paul’s speech in Athens, as recorded in the Book of Acts, which reflects further on these events: “And he made from one man [i.e. Adam] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). In these texts we discover that even through the judgment enacted at Babel, God had a redemptive purpose for nations. He made the nations, and gave them places to live, so that they would seek and find him!
The time for the nations to seek him and find him is now, because Jesus has come, and because the day is coming when the crucified and risen Jesus will judge the world: “The times of ignorance God overlooked,” Paul says, “but now he is commanding all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). As Paul said about Jesus, quoting Isaiah, “The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the nations [i.e. Gentiles]. In him the nations will hope” (Rom. 15:13, cf. Is. 11:10). God made the nations and gave them their language and identity so that they would seek and find him through his son Jesus Christ. He plans to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). And in the heavenly visions of the Book of Revelation we see that in the new creation, people from every nation will be finally united before God, through Jesus, “a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
*Biblical texts taken from the ESV, occasionally modified.